((You’ll find my conclusion on the Banana Islands below this post.))
The food… Oh, the food. Trying the local cuisine is worth all the stomach aches and all the other nastiness that can come along with culinary pleasures in a new country (although I may have disagreed with that statement when I was lying prone in the back of a shared taxi halfway between Makeni and Freetown, contemplating the sweet release of death).
It’s a good thing there are cheap cookeries and street food nearby, because the selection of “groceries” here doesn’t inspire me to cook. It’s not that the foods aren’t something I’d eat at home – lots of (unrefrigerated) fish, veggies (potato, cassava, plantain, avocado, onions, cucumber and carrots) and fruits (banana, mango, and pineapple). It’s not that the food items themselves are foreign, but there isn’t an abundance of any sort of “set” of ingredients that triggers a dish in my head. So, I end up eating a lot of peel-able fruit and veggies, and then gorging on the local eateries (ranging from 70 cents to 15 dollars per meal).
There are lots of Lebanese here, so you can find shawarma and hummus, and of course there are lots of ex-pat restaurants catering to any style of food – Chinese, Indian, American. The most common local foods are:
Ovaltine – Most Sierra Leoneans have Ovaltine for breakfast, and maybe bread or rice or leftovers. This, however, has become my morning ritual: mango and banana bought off the street the night before, very sweet orange pekoe tea with powdered milk (or, yes, Ovaltine), and bread and peanut butter… and maybe a handful of cereal.
Fish and chips – literally a whole fish, grilled and served (head and all) on a plate with French fries and salad (ask for the “dressing” on the side, they’re heavy on the mayo). Eaten on plastic patio furniture steps from Lumley Beach, wash it down with locally-brewed Star beer. Consume with care, watching out for bones big and small… and occasionally spit out a whole bite onto the ground because the bones are proving too difficult to extricate from the flesh. (Alternatively: Chicken and chips – deep-fried or grilled chicken pieces and fries, 100 times better than the Colonel’s recipe.)
Potato leaves/cassava leaves with rice – My palate is not discerning enough to distinguish between the stew made with potato leaves versus the one made from cassava… except the potato leaves are a little coarser sometimes. The leaves are spinach-ish in colour but a little tougher, more like finely-chopped kale. They’re stewed in copious amounts of palm oil (which coats the rice and leaves your lips orange at the end of the meal) with a healthy dose of eye-watering hot peppers. Usually small bits of meat make an appearance – chicken or fish – the more expensive the eatery, the more meat you get. Watch out for bones and have water handy for the burning from the peppers (which keep the parasites at bay, so no complaints here).
Groundnut stew – Basically a peanut soup spiced with the same red and green hot peppers, hosting either chicken or beef, served with rice. The chunkier and peanut-ier the better, in my humble opinion.
Jollof rice – Rice steamed in a tomato-ish liquid – sort of resembling Mexican or Spanish rice – topped with (what else?) a hot pepper sauce, with hunks of stewed chicken or beef (or both) on the side.
Curry rice – As the name suggests, curried rice served with a deep-fried piece of chicken on the side, and maybe a small salad.
Fry-fry – My lady love. Buy a six-inch loaf of white bread on the street from one of the bakery vendors… and then choose your fry-fry lady. On display are: deep-fried rice “cakes” (balls of ricey flour); four-inch fish battered and deep-fried whole (watch for bones); miniature omelettes made with onions and peppers and lots of palm oil; fried plantain; fried potato; banana balls (battered and, yes, deep-fried bananas); deep-fried poached eggs; fried fish balls; skewers of snails-and-onion or goat/beef… it goes on. While you’re agonizing over your selection, your fry-fry lady (or man,
occasionally) will cut your bread to make a sandwich, and load an oily, peppery onion sauce onto the bread. Sometimes you need to go to more than one vendor to get all the ingredients you want – they all have their own selections. The prices are different depending on what you want, but a LUXURY sammie would never cost you more than 5000 leones ($1.25) – my evening fry-fry is never more than about 70 cents. If you’re feeling decadent, buy a nice cold Fanta (which is probably the same price as the sandwich) and find a bench or crate to plunk down and enjoy while the street passes you by.
Groundnut cake – There are a few different varieties: I favour the recipe that comes out like slightly-less-brittle peanut brittle… basically, it’s easier to munch on without breaking a tooth, but boasts the same hip-widening flavours (peanuts, sugar, oil). The other variety I’ve had is a lot more like peanut fudge – sandier in texture, crumbles when it hits the lips.
As important as what food there is, is what food there ISN’T. I cannot wait to get home for:
– Milk – we only have the powdered variety, or an extremely-preserved liquid type that has to be consumed as soon as it’s opened… and in the land of no refrigerators, who wants to drink room-temperature milk?
– Cheese – Stephen brought a kilo of Balderson cheddar home from Canada – on the same day I had to start taking antibiotics, which interact poorly with dairy. FML.
– Salad – it’s hard to trust raw vegetables here unless you peel them yourself, since you never know what water they were washed in (if at all).
– Bacon – Instead of bacon, they put Spam in club sandwiches here. Ugh.
Snapper and fries for dinner on Lumley Beach: